Sunday, April 1, 2012

Branches and Cloaks and All

Small sacrifices grudgingly made and seasoned with grumbling. Comforts lost to another's need. Half an hour of naptime on a sleepy day. A few days' use of the electric wheelchair that gets me painlessly to the farther reaches of the monastery in a week when my foot isn't hurting at all. (The foot injury is minor and mending.)  As extrinsic as branches cut from someone else's tree. As unnecessary as a cloak thrown down by someone surrounded by an excited crowd. So much for the palms I bring to acclaim the strange Savior who spurns a richly caparisoned palfrey in favor of a donkey on this Palm Sunday
Today's preacher, St.Andrew of Crete, whose words we read at the Office of Readings, suggests that instead of palm branches or cloaks (or small comforts grudgingly given) we lay down ourselves, not stripped of those unneeded cloaks but fully clothed in the Christ to whom we are come to acclaim. 

 He introduces this odd image gently enough. Let us prostrate--lay ourselves down-- before him by being humble.  Clearly he does not intend us to fling ourselves down literally in the roadbed. That would be rather extravagant, but he was a Cretan after all, and an ancient one at that. Perhaps they did those things then. No, surely he just means that we should become humble of heart.  No need for show.  Of course, St. Benedict, in Chapter 7 of his Rule, “On Humility” does expect us to match the deed to the word.  But let us not exaggerate.  Perhaps a little deeper bow at the creed or before receiving communion. Nothing too flashy, of course. Not like that worshiper in the next pew who goes all hunched over after the consecration. That's a bit unnecessary. But a tasteful mid-sized bow rather than the usual head bob. Yes,  that should do it.

St. Andrew doesn't stop there, however. He adds to his suggestion that we prostrate before Christ by doing his will.  Oh, now, we have to be careful with this one.  St. Andrew doesn’t mean for us to lay our wills down there at his feet for him to trample on.  Of course not. We have all had plenty of experience of wills trampled by those older or more powerful than we—unheeding parents, impatient teachers, indifferent bureaucrats, officious officials of one sort or another.  No, thank you, we are not interested in playing that part again.  Of course, it’s true that self-will can be a bit of a problem, especially for those around us.  Ask any parent whose two-year-old has just learned the art of the red-faced, puffed-cheek, arms-akimbo, foot-stomping “No!”  But we are adults, are we not?  Reasonable people, surely?  Willing to give a little here and there, bend a bit before the breeze, give up a little bit of what we want (A half-hour nap? A convenient wheelchair? Oh, surely not so much.) We don’t want to become doormats.  And anyway, Jesus never walks on people’s wills.  He asks.  We can always say no.  Well, yes, we did agree to follow him.  And, yes, he laid down a lot more than his will in that ugly story we read at length in today’s liturgy.  And, yes, no doubt the Father asked—but the thing is that he didn’t say no.  On the contrary.  Oh dear.  A short nap missed, a few days on foot down the hall are beginning to look rather small.

Now St. Andrew is back to suggest laying down not our pride, not our will, but ourselves before him.  Not the old self in the patched cloak or the dirty rags, but the new self, clothed in him.  The fresh, clean, obedient, willing, loving self we would like to think we are.  And we are, actually, at least potentially.  But our tragedy is that we can still say no, we can still cast off this amazing garment, we can still go back to the dirty rags, the patched cloaks, the foot-stomping no, the proud, unbending neck.  We can always go back. Our freedom, our call.

I wonder if one of the reasons we celebrate Holy Week with such powerful dramas of word and music and props and processions is to remind us that we can, but we don’t have to, not anymore.  That’s what the end of the story means, is it not? The part we don’t read till Saturday night and Sunday, after all the miserable, gory, tragic verses have been read. The part where the tomb stands empty, the bread broken by familiar hands. and all that light shining around us as the Voice says, “Lo!  I make all things new.  Even you.”  The part where we answer not “No!” but “Alleluia!”

©2012 Abbey of St. Walburga

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